Faith and Film (prt. 2): The Mission

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By Joe LaGuardia

When I was in high school, my sister Gina and brother-in-law Frank invited me to join them for dinner in Manhattan with one of Frank’s clients. Frank was a personal trainer and this client had meant a great deal to him; the client, a Jesuit priest whose name I’ve since lost, had become a sort of mentor and father figure to Frank.

I don’t remember the fine details of our conversation over dinner, but I do remember enjoying the priest’s explanation of Catholicism and the Society of Brothers, commonly known as the Jesuits. I, an evangelical mostly reared in the south, had certain assumptions of Catholics that this particular Brother sought to correct. He did a good job, and I’ve respected Catholics in general and Jesuits specifically ever since.

One other thing I remember clearly is that the priest recommended I watch the 1986 movie The Mission, staring Robert DeNiro. He thought it might be a good historical primer on the work that Jesuits had accomplished over the centuries.

In The Mission DeNiro, a Portuguese conquistador and slave trader, warred with the Jesuits and their work in converting South American Guarani natives. DeNiro ends up killing his brother over a love triangle and runs away to the Jesuits. Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, takes him in as a sort of disciple.

Much of the movie focuses on DeNiro’s transformation from warrior to wounded servant. The journey he takes is one of redemption, and–as any good epic goes–a discovery that his biggest enemy is himself. God forgives him, but he cannot receive it because he cannot forgive himself.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, DeNiro made a long climb up a waterfall to reach the mission with a band of priests and natives. He is hauling his armor in a sort of net knapsack, and after climbing all the way he falls in exhaustion and pain. A native grabs a knife and cuts the chords to the knapsack, and the armor plummets down the mountain. DeNiro finds liberation. His past, now behind him, no longer enslaves him. The natives accept him as one of their own.

For years and years, I have spent much of my Christian walk trying to figure out what baggage I keep bringing along with me in my ascension towards Christ. What is it that I am holding onto? Where do I need the fresh waters of the mountains and the salty tears of my soul to bless and baptize me? Where do I need Christ’s liberation and permission to forgive myself for all of the stupid things I’ve done and continue to do?

These questions haunt me, and the images of The Mission still ring in my imagination. Its amazing how one Manhattan dinner with a stranger who happened to be a priest made such an impact on my life. I can see–as I realized back then–why this man was so important to Frank’s life.

The last I checked, Frank lost contact with the priest, so I am unable to contact the priest and tell him how much that conversation meant to me. I am unable to convey (on this side of heaven, at least) how his wisdom, grace, and movie recommendation changed my life.

I was a born again evangelical when I met with Gina, Frank, and that priest over dinner so long ago; and I feel I was born again a second time after I walked away from that dinner.

The Offensive Gospel

warbBy Joe LaGuardia

In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians.  Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.

Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.

Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere.  Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”

The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all.  Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.

The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty.  We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.

That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point.  It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.

Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.

It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11).  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness  to those who are perishing” (1:18).

Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?

A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution.   St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.

Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved.  Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.

This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.

Paul was not a rogue in this mission.  He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.

Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God.  Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.

In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution.  Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.

“Fear and Trembling” at the coming of the Lord

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By Joe LaGuardia

What is it like for you to experience God when God draws near?

Some say that experiencing God is like being a first-time father in a labor and delivery room as his wife is pushing and breathing and crying and hoping.  New life is about to erupt on the scene, and its the most beautiful thing in the world, but also the most terrifying.

Others may say that meeting God is like visiting the tiger at the zoo.  One is enthralled with the beauty and hypnotized by its deep-set eyes.  There is awe at the beast’s power and majesty, but no one wants to jump in the enclosure and give it a hug.

Yet others might compare their experience of God by referring to a movie or parable.  The “Life of Pi” comes to mind–a story about a boy and his animals stranded on a life-boat in the middle of the ocean.  There, tragedies and storms, as well as serenity and enlightenment all provide opportunities to meet the Divine.

Psalm 114, which recalls God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt and God’s decision to call Israel home, communicates one author’s profound experience of God.  It is a short psalm, but its poetry is rich in its use of creation metaphors to describe God’s homecoming for them…and for us.

“Judah became God’s sanctuary,” the psalter recalls, “And the sea looked and fled…the mountains skipped like rams” (v. 2, 3, 4).

God’s power and majesty was on full display when God saved Israel from Egypt.  Israel: A small, tribal people enslaved by one of the most powerful and technologically advanced empires in the ancient world.  God: Creator of all life, one who chose Israel to call home.

It was a heart-shattering,  empire shattering, creation disturbing notion: God and Israel, together.

What else is there to do but ask questions?

“Why do you flee, O sea?  Why do you skip, O mountains?”

And pose a challenge: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord” (v. 7).

Such questions accompanied by a command make it seem that the psalm gives mixed messages.  How is it that, in one breath, the psalter wonders why creation flees in fear from the coming of the Lord; but, in the next breath, commands the earth to, well, fear God in trembling repose?

Perhaps the secret lies in the word, “tremble.”

First, it is hard to tremble in God’s presence when you’re too busy running from Him.

Second, if you read the Bible cover to cover, you would note that those who tremble are the very same people who come into contact with God and are changed forever.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel trembled when God gave them the Law.  Moses trembled when he met God face to face.

In the New Testament, people and demons alike trembled in Jesus’ presence.  The woman who was hemorrhaging for years, upon being healed by Jesus, bowed down in worship to him, “trembling” (Mark 5:33).

Mary and her friends “trembled” after meeting the Risen Christ at the empty tomb (Mark 16:8).

Crowds trembled at God’s power when the disciples performed miracles; Peter mentioned that unrepentant sinners are unrepentant precisely because they “tremble not” (2 Peter 2:10); and Paul encouraged the Philippians to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.”

If you experience God with mixed feelings of awe and majesty, as well as fear and trembling, then you are in good company.

And who can blame you?  God is so amazing, so much larger than we can imagine; how else can we respond?

Psalm 114 gives us two choices: We can either run away and keep God at arm’s length, or we can come into God’s presence and be utterly transformed into something new.  It is awesome, but it can also be frightening.

Sometimes God comes to us in a still, small voice.  Other times, God comes to us and scares the dickens–and the demons–out of us as we tremble in His presence.  But let Psalm 114 encourage you today: flee not; God is present.